Outsourcing the Afghan War

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Last Friday, NBC News reported that President Trump is seriously considering allowing Erik Prince, founder of the discredited guns-for-hire Blackwater Corporation, to form a new mercenary group to replace the U.S. military and continue the war in Afghanistan.

But continuing the war under any auspices is bad for American interests. The war should instead be ended as rapidly as possible.

Prince belittled the Pentagon for trying to solve the Afghan problem with conventional troops—a criticism, incidentally, with which I partially agree—while arguing his plan to use a much smaller footprint focused on Special Operations forces would instead succeed.

To buttress his claim, he repeatedly cited the success of the initial 2001-2002 military operation that featured small U.S. cells cooperating with local Afghan forces. His endorsement of such a plan exposes a remarkable lack of understanding of how different the strategic, operational, and tactical situation is today.

These differences aren’t hard to recognize, and any analyst with a basic understanding of military affairs should be able to spot the fatal flaws of Prince’s plan almost immediately.  I served twice in Afghanistan and can confirm that his plan would fail even more certainly than our current ineffective plans. Here’s why.

In October 2001 when the U.S. attack began, Afghanistan was in the midst of a civil war that had been raging since 1994 between a loose confederation of allied tribes and groups known as the Northern Alliance on the one hand, and by Mullah Muhammad Omar’s Taliban on the other.   

The U.S. sent Special Operations teams to link up with Northern Alliance fighters and provide them with intelligence, considerable air power, and other support. At that time, the Taliban had a field army, a functioning government, and ruled from fixed locations in Kabul. U.S. support to the Northern Alliance quickly turned the tide of the conflict, and within a few months, the Taliban’s army had been virtually destroyed, and Omar’s government forced into exile in Pakistan.

Today, the landscape of the conflict is radically different than it was in October 2001. The Taliban is a shadowy insurgent foe (though in recent months they have been engaging in progressively more overt and complex operations). 

Opposing the Taliban are numerous, uncoordinated—and often competing—government police, militia, and conventional army units, as well as a growing number of smaller independent insurgent or terror groups that battle multiple sides, often switching their allegiances as conditions evolve. 

The idea that a small group of special operations forces could simply reprise the 2001 outcome when the operational environment is radically different exposes that Prince possesses a surprisingly poor understanding of operational concepts. 

If the president listens to Prince and supports the employment of a mercenary mission, Trump will be even more disappointed by the lack of resolution. All Prince would succeed in doing is perpetuating the forever-war, while making millions of dollars in profit.

The bigger truth, however, is that there is only one course of action Trump could choose at this point which would have a real chance at protecting American interests: ending the war and withdrawing U.S. troops.

So long as U.S. military power remains in Afghanistan, the government in Kabul is almost certain to remain solvent and in power; however menacing and resurgent the Taliban, they will never be able to physically overrun the capital and take power so long as American troops and air power remain. However, whether it is the 140,000 U.S. and NATO troops Obama tried, the 15,000 troops Trump currently employs, or Prince’s proposed 2001 reboot with 6,000 mercenaries, the military mission will continue to fail.

The reason? On the most fundamental level, military power won’t solve political problems, neither will privatizing it.

We’ve ignored this basic reality for 17 years and tried to force a military solution—and suffered the predictable results: a never-ending war. To give us a chance of preserving U.S. strength and our ability to prosper as a nation, Trump should order the systematic withdraw of all U.S. combat troops over a 12-month period. 

The security of the American homeland will be protected from any threats emanating from Afghanistan just as they are on a daily basis from the rest of the millions of square miles of ungoverned spaces around the globe: a robust combination of global intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets working hand-in-hand with the CIA, FBI, and local law enforcement. The people in Afghanistan who will have to live with the outcome will do whatever is necessary to finally find a political settlement for the decades of war they’ve already endured. 

It may be bloody, and it will be messy, but the harsh truth is that our attempts to impose a solution of our choosing has succeeded only in seeing the violence continue—and in recent years, worsen—without even the possibility of resolution. 

A withdrawal may not immediately end the violence or bloodshed, but it will make an end possible.

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments, two in Afghanistan. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

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